A guide is almost essential to making the most of a bucket list trip to a place you've never been to before. With that in mind, here's how to make the best decision for a guide hire with your money. Ryan Dunfee photo.
Choosing the right outfitter for your next guided adventure is critical to getting the most out of your trip, and the most bang for your buck. As a sea kayak and road bike guide myself, I sat down with a few of my co-guides and guides from other activities and locations to put together a list of the five things you should look for when you’re planning to book a guided trip, and one tip for tipping if all goes well.
The two most helpful guides contributing to the making of this list were former TGR intern and Alaskan badass glacier and sea kayak guide, Pyper Dixon, and Yosemite rock climbing guide Zack Wentz.
Often it is not obvious from pamphlets or ads who is the most reliable company and who will leave you sitting in an office for three hours because their logistics fell through. Even the most experienced outdoors people often find themselves having to hire a guide to reach places outside of their realm of expertise, and often while you’re on vacation for those once-in-a-lifetime experiences (SUPing around glaciers, kayaking around dangerous currents while viewing killer whales, climbing a new, technical multi-pitch, etc.) require a guide whose expertise will bring you back safely.
As well, sometimes the area you want to enter simply requires that you go on a guided trip to protect the landscape and the animals from too much tourist traffic.
#1: Check Trip Advisor and Yelp, Use These Guidelines
Keep in mind that people will generally be harsher in their criticism online than they would be in person. Liquid Adventures photo.
All of the guides involved in in making this list agreed that Trip Advisor and Yelp are the best way to tell if a company is reliable and delivers what they promise.
Look for reviews that say the reviewer had a blast and learned about technique, animals, plants or landscape during their trip. Avoid any company where multiple reviewers note that they were concerned for their safety. If safety concerns are a theme, that is a HUGE red flag and should encourage you to find another company.
Companies also change over time and often become more efficient and better organized after a couple seasons of working out the kinks; weigh the recent reviews more heavily than the old ones (the guide who received a worrisome review may not be with the company anymore anyways, you can always call and check).
Keep in mind: People will often be harsher online than they would be in real life, and (believe it or not) some people show up to a trip with incredibly unreasonable expectations or the sole intention of having a bad time–if you see reviews intent on screwing the company but have little to back it up other than “the brand of hot chocolate was wrong”, I encourage you to take them with a grain of salt.
A tip for multiday trips: If you are going on a multi-day tour where the guides cook your food, then pay attention to any review where food is mentioned. Some companies prioritize cooking skills in their interview process and provide their guides with access to quality food and good recipes, some companies don’t, and often the price between them is negligible. Well-fed guests are the happiest, and any good guiding company should value that, so long as access to good food is feasible.
#2: Check Company Website for Professionalism and Guide Information
If you see the same guides have worked at the same company year after year, that's a good sign. Ryan Dunfee photo.
A company’s website is a great gauge for how seriously the company’s management takes itself and its relationship with the general public. An informative website that appears professional and is at least somewhat easily navigable is a sign that the company values organization and reliability. Not all companies do.
The website should have bios about staff citing their experience level, applicable training, and relevant schooling. For more dangerous activities, like rock climbing, it’s imperative that your guides have good credentials including multiple years of technical climbing experience.
Also, many companies will note how long particular guides have been with them–don’t overlook this as it’s a crucial piece of information. Staff retention rates show that guides make the conscious choice to return to that specific company year after year, as we are seasonal workers we could go somewhere else if we weren’t being treated fairly at the company we’re at.
If a company must rehire all guides every year, they are probably a logistical or managerial nightmare, and I would avoid them as a guest. Also, experienced guides know more about the region and have their trips dialed much better than new guides who are likely to make more mistakes.
It is worth noting that not all companies will value a nice website, and culturally this may change quite a bit outside of North America.
#3: Understand Your Own Limitations
You may know how to sea kayak already, but don't overestimate how ell you'll be able to kayak in unfamiliar waters. Nancy Heise photo via Wikipedia.
Many activities people do while on vacation are things they could also do at home (e.g. sea kayaking can also be done in a lake rather than on the ocean or sea). Thus, people tend to show up to an activity they are familiar with at home and believe they will be 100% competent at it elsewhere. It’s important to realize that guides usually have credentials for a reason, and that there is value in being familiar with a certain area and its specified set of risks.
You may not realize the dangers involved in an activity while you are booking it (often my clients have no clue how dangerous our tides and currents can be), so even if you’re familiar with the sport, it is important to find a company with well-trained guides who will be able to fill in the gaps of knowledge and experience you may not have.
Essentially, you shouldn’t try to save money by booking with a company who clearly has been dealing with safety concerns simply because you’re familiar with a given sport or activity.
#4: No Drunk Captains
Often, people who book booze cruises, or trips where they want to party while doing outdoor activities, look to the crew to facilitate the “party atmosphere” for them. Using a guiding company is not like going to a club; often there is a sense of risk associated with doing whatever you’re doing that mandates that at least the captain (or guide) stay sober.
If you’re looking to go get fully turnt (or whatever the kids are saying these days) in a beautiful place, or even just to have a few drinks and watch the sunset on someone’s fancy sailboat, the captain NEEDS to be able to make it back to the dock at the end of the trip. A good guiding service should be able to keep you at ease and encourage you to have fun while maintaining their own level of sobriety; be wary as not all companies have found this balance.
If the crew is down to rage once you’re back safely, then by all means take advantage of the local beta they can provide (obviously you should trust anyone you choose to go party with, especially in a location foreign to you).
#5. Small Groups and Local Companies are Generally Better
Almost always, smaller guided groups result in a better experience. Ryan Dunfee photo.
While traveling in a large group may not bother all tourists equally, generally finding a company that aims for smaller groups is better. Having a small group allows the guide to tailor the trip to the needs of individual travelers and gives you the chance for a more intimate connection to the outdoors and the rest of the group. Large groups tend to make flexibility nearly impossible and can sometimes impact the potential to view wildlife due to noise and the fact that the group is easily visible from afar.
Also, it may be comforting to go with a big name-brand company because it’s something familiar, but there are quite a few perks to booking with a local outfitter: it’s often cheaper, they usually hire locals who grew up in the area and have facts and stories to entertain and educate with, and the trips are able to be much more personalized because they are (usually) smaller. I’ve met many guides who work for multi-national corporations who were fantastic at their jobs and wonderful to their guests, but they didn’t know the names of our trees, the times of our ferries (to transport between islands) and were already planning for their next trip in another state. If you’re really wanting to connect with the area you’re traveling it, it’s best to do it with people who have dedicated their lives to guiding in that area.'
But, as Pyper Dixon says, “If you really just don’t care and you want everything to be taken care of for you without any say or effort on your part, then you should probably just book a cruise.” So, if this sounds like you, then you may want to disregard everything except the morals of #1 and #4.
You chose the right company, your trip was amazing. Now here’s how to tip:
Most guides and guests avoid the conversation of tipping, and thus it seems that folklore about what “industry standard" tipping is continues to get passed around. If you’re looking to tip your guide well, you should take the same percentage of your total trip bill as you would use to tip a good waiter or a bartender (15% is what we hope for usually, 20% will likely make our month and we will remember your name for years!).
Most guides won’t bring it up, but we tend to make almost half of our yearly wages off of tips, and we count on the tips to pay for important things like medical bills, food, school tuition, and car insurance. Just because you booked an expensive trip does not mean your guide is paid well. In fact, it’s often less than minimum wage if your multi-day guide is working from sun-up to sun-down, as most good guides do.
Lastly, seemingly contrary to popular belief, tipping your guide should not feel or look like a drug deal. You don’t need to hide the money in your sleeve when you hand it to your guide, and you CAN ask what the industry standard tipping rate is if you forget what is written above. If you wouldn’t hand a wad of crumpled ones to a server at an expensive restaurant then you probably don’t need to do that to your guide either.
If you remember to bring cash ahead of time, that is easiest, checks are also usually appreciated, and many outfitters will take credit card tips for their guides, but usually this is less ideal. If you ask your guide or an office person, they will usually know where the cheapest ATM is nearby, provided you are not completely out in the boonies.
Along with tipping, if you want to give us a hug at the end of the trip, usually that’s great, if you want to exchange emails and send us pictures to forward to our mothers, that’s all good too. If you write us a 5 star rating on Trip Advisor, that’s also pretty kickass and keeps us getting work in the future.
Cheers and enjoy your trip!
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